Fantastic Defenders

momotaro enlists allies

Momotaro enlists allies: a dog, a monkey, and a pheasant. [Project Gutenberg]

I have recently served as co-editor of a short story anthology, Fantastic Defenders, with my fellow writer, David Keener. The official release was during Balticon. I had fun writing the introduction, and here it is, to give you an idea of what the book’s aim is:

One place to begin, in talking about fantastic defenders, is the Japanese folk tale “Momotaro”: a childless old woman finds a beautiful peach floating down a stream and she takes it home to her husband; the peach suddenly splits open and a miraculous baby boy is inside. When the boy grows to fifteen years old, he hears of the people of northeast Japan being terrorized by demons who arrive by sea to pillage, kidnap, and murder. Momotaro determines that he will be their defender and fight the demons.

Or, if you prefer, look at Beowulf: the young man hears of a land being tormented by the man-eating monster Grendel and he sails from his home in Geatland to offer himself as defender to King Hrothgar.

As for the “fantastic” part, while it points to the story having fantastical elements, the defender often does not have any magical powers—but still may have to oppose supernatural creatures. Momotaro may be a gift from heaven to a deserving couple, but no special powers are given to him. Beowulf relies on his courage and his great physical strength.

In these two exemplar stories, we can discern the nature of the defender, who:

• is compassionate and feels intensely the distress of others;
• may defend an individual, but frequently is defending an entire people; and
• possesses an extraordinary firmness of will and clarity of purpose, and does not waver or give up.

Every defender will not perfectly fulfill all of these traits, but this is our starting point.

The struggle against despair is a frequent theme in stories of fantastic defenders. Sometimes it is an inward struggle, a personal dark night of the soul. Or despair permeates an entire community; a people have lost the ability to live their lives free from oppression and violence. The defender is the enemy of despair.

To point to another well-known defender, Gandalf does have magical powers—he is a wizard and also possesses one of the rings of power. Yet his actions with the greatest impact, for all his ability to bring down bolts of lightning on foes, are in discernment and hope. He counsels and persuades Theoden to resist and fight rather than surrender to hopelessness; he rallies scattered forces to return and fight; dread flees from his presence because his courage and steadfast commitment heartens people.

And here’s another: Clarence the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life. Clarence—in spite of his cherubic demeanor, tendency to giggle, and dithering over ordering a flaming rum punch or mulled wine “heavy on the cinnamon and light on the cloves”—proves to be a determined, indeed, a steely and almost cruel defender against despair. He allows George Bailey to see an alternate future in which he never existed: a brother dead in childhood; his mother old, embittered, poor; his uncle in an insane asylum; and most painfully, his never-wife Mary alone, childless, not recognizing him. This is tough love at the highest setting.

It’s rather fun to put Clarence in the company of Gandalf, Beowulf, and Momotaro. But something even more unusual is under the surface of It’s a Wonderful Life. In the process of saving George, Clarence doesn’t just keep him from jumping off a bridge on Christmas Eve. He enables a revelation: it turns out that George is the defender of the town of Bedford Falls, and has been ever since he took over the family building and loan after the death of his father.

As the alternate-reality scenario later makes explicit, the fate of Bedford Falls depends on the outcome of the struggle between the predator, Mr. Potter, and the defender, George Bailey. George makes a blunt assessment of what’s at stake very early in the story, when he hears the town banker call for the Bailey Building and Loan to be shut down: “My father…did help a few people get out of your slums, Mr. Potter… People were human beings to him, but to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they’re cattle… This town needs this measly one-horse institution if only to have some place where people can come without crawling to Potter.”

And yet, somehow, George remains largely unconscious of his calling as a defender. Momotaro knows what he’s set out to do. So do Gandalf and Beowulf. George, however, doesn’t see the latent, ghostly potentiality of Pottersville, awaiting the moment when the will of its would-be maker is free and unopposed, ever ready to manifest itself and grow into merciless and degrading reality. George runs his business, makes loans, celebrates the new houses of his friends, and all the while his life is a disappointment to him. Distracted by his regret for the adventurous life he never achieved, he misses the big picture of his purpose in family and community.

That awareness comes as part of the climax on Christmas Eve, when George faces despair and sees what it means to not be there, to not take action. How interesting it is for the audience to see the hero’s purpose—which is usually presented early to drive the story—arrive so late, and yet be so satisfying!

We have stretched the definition of a fantastic defender and ventured outside the confines of genre by including George Bailey. He does not face a supernatural foe. But look again at Beowulf’s enemy, Grendel. Why does he hunt and murder the Danes? Because the sound of music and joy coming from the beautiful hall Heorot arouses his anger and hatred, directed against the people inside. In terms of character psychology, Grendel’s estrangement from mankind seems strangely similar to Mr. Potter’s.

So, step into the circle, George Bailey. Shake hands with Beowulf, but do be mindful of his powerful grip.

One last thought. Why do we love stories of fantastic defenders? Here is a possible answer, first provided by G. K. Chesterton: “Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already,” he wrote. “The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”

This idea was paraphrased more succinctly by Neil Gaiman as “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

Chesterton and Gaiman are speaking of stories about fantastic defenders, the ones who see rapacious and violent enemies and refuse to flee, will not lay low. They run toward the terrors. We admire them and take heart from their courage. And it is with pleasure that we offer the stories of Fantastic Defenders. We hope that the stories do justice to the spirit of real defenders everywhere.

 

“Ambidextrose” by Jay Werkheiser

“Ambidextrose” by Jay Werkheiser is from the October 2012 issue of Analog. It builds its situation from a problem of chemical incompatibility between human settlers of an alien planet and the exobiotic native life, useless to Earth organisms because the organic molecules are chemically wrong-handed. Wrong-handed sugars are nutritionally inert for humans, the amino acids poisonous.

The main character, Davis, survives a shuttle crash in a wilderness area of the planet Tau Ceti. He is from the single area on the entire planet that is inhabited by colonists (or so they believe), an island they call Haven. To establish the colony, the island had been sterilized of native life and seeded with Earth life.

At the time of the crash, Davis was exploring the wilderness beyond Haven with an eye for eventual expansion of the colony. He is rescued by an old woman, Lyda, who shouldn’t have been there; the colonists have no idea that any human lives outside Haven — indeed, that any human could survive outside of their colony. He learns that the mystery inhabitants of the wilderness don’t want to be found by his people, and they do not share his horror of the native vegetation — they have found ways of living with it, even making it digestible. He also learns that some of the native life is racemic — containing both left- and right-handed molecules.

In the process of adapting to the native biological conditions, Lyda’s people have developed a different culture. Marriage is unknown. Woman stay put, living in houses, and men are nomadic, visiting women only to mate. I was amused when Lyda tells Davis that her only visitors are women because she is too old to bear children. Really? No man, ever, visits a woman to just, say, talk?

Oh well. Some sort of remodeling of gender roles has become rote in SF, and it isn’t the main business of the story. It is suggested that this arrangement is an aid to survival in the wilderness of Tau Ceti because it increases genetic diversity. I would have imagined that other factors might also play a part, but Lyda shrugs and says men do what they do, and so we’ll have to take it on faith.

Some of Lyda’s people want to make sure that Davis never returns to his people, thus keeping their existence a secret from the colonists. Davis realizes that this means killing him. I’ll let you discover what happens from this point.

I like this story’s exploration of a less-worn SF problem of alien life and the consequences of biological incompatibility. It also, of course, has echoes of past conquests of other New Worlds. Werkheiser shows a new way of thinking just at its starting point, as Davis picks up a few clues from the alien life that he has heretofore had a great aversion toward, suggesting that the colony may awaken to possibilities other than conquest. A nice little story, if containing no great excitement.

“Nell” by Karen Hesse

“Nell” is a new story up on Tor.com this week. Read it here. (It’s reprinted from an anthology, What You Wish For, published by Book Wish Foundation, 2012) The story is told from the perspective of a 12-year-old girl who’s been 12 for about a hundred years, but in different bodies:

One winter night in my twelfth year, my father hit me and hit me and did not stop. …When the mist faded, I was inside another body. She had been ill, the girl whose body I now inhabited. But she was gone and I was there. What happened to her I don’t know. What happened to my first body I cannot say. But I learned quickly to adapt to a new life.
And I learned to prolong that life for months, though never for more than a year. And that’s how it continues. The children whose bodies I take are always twelve. I keep them alive as long as I can. But sometime during the year their bodies fail and I lift out of one and slip into another.
I am always dying. I am never dying. I have died and died and died again, but I do not stay dead.
Tonight another twelfth year ends.

The story of Nell is interwoven with “The Little Match Girl” by Hans Christian Andersen. (It helps to know the Andersen tale, although it is not necessary, as the vital parts are included in this story.) On a bitterly cold night, Nell waits for her end to come, as she thinks it must. But she then becomes aware of another girl, in the cold and dark outside her comfortable home, who is in peril.

Spooky, quiet, and suspenseful… this is one you should read.

“Star Soup” by Chris Willrich in Asimov’s

I’m currently reading the Sept 2012 issue of Asimov’s, and I haven’t gotten through the whole issue yet, but I’ve gone back to read “Star Soup” by Chris Willrich. I find it a highly pleasurable story. I was a little surprised to like it so much, because after the first two pages my expectation was that it was simply going to be a retelling of the folk story “Stone Soup.” A stranger comes to town, and finding no hospitality forthcoming from the villagers, requests only a pot to make some soup.

A pale mainstrain human, her hair grey and her hand-knit wools swirling with every color but, nudged a cauldron through the doorway.
“You will need a fire,” she said, blinking at the sight of Twitch.
“I understand,” he said. “Thank you.” And as he carried the cauldron (easily, for he was conditioned to higher gravity) and thudded it into the dirt that served as the village square, she continued watching from the door. Twitch withdrew two heat-bricks from his pack and set them down parallel. He hefted the cauldron again and placed it on top. There was a well in that place and community buckets beside, so he pumped and carried and filled, until the cauldron was sloshing and the eastern horizon was silver and the window full of eyes.
He kicked at the heat-bricks and they glowed. He hummed. Bubbles burst the water.
He fished in his pack for a hefty stone that looked torn from a larger mass, black with pocks and speckles, and he rotated it back and forth in the gray.
Presently a few Dimmers crept out in their nightclothes to regard him. There was a long-snouted brown canid, a dark mainstrain man, and a wide-eyed orange felid girl.
“What are you holding?” said the girl, striped tail swishing.
“A star stone. A thing I chased from the skies, knowing the wonders it bears. Within are rare organic compounds, quickened by the fires of atmospheric entry. I mean to dine upon them, making delicious star soup.”

But from here, the story takes an unexpected turn, as the stranger asks each villager to add to the soup by telling something about the world they live on. As each one speaks, we learn a bit about the character, the world, the society, and the (dangerous) wildlife on the planet. In the process, the villagers turn out to be not as dull as first appearances suggest, and even the stone is not what it seems.

“We just like to talk about stories”

The alternate titles that I considered for this post were “The Purpose of ‘Other Worlds'” and “I just like to talk about stories.” The first was boring and the second, while true, misses the crucial point of talking about stories with other people who read and appreciate fiction. I went with “we” in the title above because I see the blog as a conversation.

I have a co-worker — let’s call her “Felice” — who’s crazy about cats and loves to tell about the latest humorous behavior and misbehavior of her felines. I gave her a copy of Fritz Leiber’s “Space-Time for Springers,” thinking she’d love it. The weekend passed… On Monday, I asked Felice how she liked the story. She said, “Oh, I read the first two pages and then I gave it to my Mom so she could read it and tell me what happened. She liked it.”

I’m afraid my mouth may have hung open for a minute. Her answer (P. G. Wodehouse, come to my aid) seemed to take me into a different and dreadful world.

So, just to be clear: “Other Worlds” is not for Felice.

Hugo Awards: My Pick for Best Short Story

Today is the last day to vote on the Hugos, if you need a last-minute reminder (I expect everyone who’s going to vote already has).

I’ve decided which of the five stories I hope will win. It’s “Movement” by Nancy Fulda, for its beautifully unified character, voice, and story. The protagonist is convincing, and the author’s hand is sure but not too heavy (as I felt marred “The Paper Menagerie”). The reader shares a fascinating awareness while the protagonist faces and thinks through a problem that will have a crucial effect on her abilities and her future. Good luck to Nancy Fulda! I will not be attending WorldCon, but will be watching the awards with suspense.

The runner-up, for me, was E. Lily Yu’s “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” for its satiric take on human society and government. Poorly executed satire can annoy or bore; her story sparkles. It’s the difference between a bludgeon and a rapier. So I will not be unhappy if this one wins.

Tomorrow, discussing Best Novelette. All the nominees can be found here.

Hugo Awards: Best Short Story Contenders (5)

Fifth and last, E. Lily Yu’s “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” from Clarkesworld Magazine. Read it here.

A race of wasps common around the village of Yiwei is discovered to construct nests that unfold into beautiful colored maps of the surrounding country. Once this discovery is made, the nests are taken by the villagers to sell, nearly exterminating the wasp population, but one remaining population flees far enough away to elude the plunderers, and settles to rebuild their society. In adopting their new home, however, they have invaded the territory of a bee community (whose society is termed a “constitutional monarchy”). The wasps are ruthless to the bee ambassadors who arrive with less-than-deferential embassies to their ruling foundress. The choice they present to the bees is “enslavement or cooperation”–specifically, one-tenth of their honey production and one out of 100 of the larvae, who will live among the wasps and serve them. The bees capitulate without a struggle:

“War is out of the question,” another said.

“Their forces are vastly superior.”

“We outnumber them three hundred to one!”

“They are experienced fighters. Sixty of us would die for each of theirs.”

This talking-yourself-into-defeat counsel of the bees simply delights me, it is so wonderfully barbed. (Evidently, the bees lack a Winston Churchill.)

So the bees begin a new, joyless life of “cooperation.” But, in like wise as the wasps descended on the bees in an unforeseen catastrophe, so is a catastrophe in store for the wasps: a girl from Yiwei, ever since hearing about the cartographer wasps, has been dreaming of making her fortune and achieving fame. She finds the remaining nest in the winter, when the wasps are harmless from the cold, and takes it back to Yiwei, planning to breed more wasp colonies and profit from them. For the wasps, then, slavery to (or “cooperation” with) humans.

It’s a playful and satiric story, and I enjoyed it greatly. Another good contender for the Best Story Hugo.

By the way, I do not grasp the significance of the last line of the story.

“Write,” one said to the other, and she did.

Can anyone help me out? It’s always disappointing to reach the end and think “?” Writing is a skill the bees learned from the wasps, but I don’t think that’s the point here.

Hugo Awards: Best Short Story Contenders (4)

Fourth on the ballot for Best Short Story: “The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu. You can read it here.

Jack is the son of an American father and a Chinese mother, who was a mail-order bride. The marriage is a successful one, but at age 10 Jack becomes aware of the ethnic differences between himself and his American classmates.

When the family moves, two neighbors come to visit the new arrivals, and Jack overhears them talking about him:

“Slanty eyes, white face. A little monster.”

He begins to resent his mother’s lack of assimilation, refuses to speak to her in Chinese, and asks for “real toys” instead of the origami that his mother makes (animal figures which are more marvelous than the Star Wars toys that he desires, because his mother animates them with life).

The situation and the characters are compelling. But… it may be hard for a reader to believe the extreme coldness that Jack displays toward his mother, unrelenting until he reaches adulthood, a coldness that verges on cruelty when she appeals to him in vain and he rejects the new origami animals that she makes, her overtures to regain his love. Even ten-year-olds are not that easily ruled by peer pressure, or so steadfast in rejecting a loving parent. Nor is it easily credited that neighbors, no matter how prejudiced against a Chinese mother married to an American, would describe the child as a monster. I, at least, began to feel unfairly manipulated.

And this is a pity, because it is a lovely story that doesn’t need the excess. I think it has a chance of winning the Best Short Story award. Comments?

Hugo Awards: Best Short Story Contenders (3)

The third story for consideration is Nancy Fulda’s “Movement,” published in Asimov’s. Read it here. As with the previous discussion, I will not be avoiding spoilers.

This is an impressive story. Hannah, a teenage girl with “temporal autism,” is the narrator. Hannah is highly intelligent and is a talented dancer, but she speaks rarely and is disinclined to make human connection with others. Her parents are considering a new treatment, synaptic grafting, as a cure for her condition.

An interaction with her mother illustrates her condition:

“Would you like that, Hannah? Would you like to be more like other teenagers?”

Neither yes nor no seems appropriate, so I do not say anything. Words are such fleeting, indefinite things. They slip through the spaces between my thoughts and are lost.

She keeps looking at me and I consider giving her an answer I’ve been saving. Two weeks ago she asked me whether I would like a new pair of dancing shoes and if so, what color. I have collected the proper words in my mind, smooth and firm like pebbles, but I decide it is not worth speaking them. Usually by the time I answer a question, people have forgotten that they asked it.

The story title, “Movement,” refers to Hannah’s love of things that do not change quickly, such as glass and stone. Things that are always changing, such as clouds and conversation, make her uneasy. She is keenly aware of the flow of time, and sees herself as living on a different time scale. At the end of the story, she decides she doesn’t want the treatment, but she communicates this by telling her mother that she does not want new shoes–a message her mother will not understand.

Hannah’s perspective is a fascinating one, the story well crafted and unusual. It should be a strong contender for best story.

Hugo Awards: Best Short Story Contenders (2)

Next on the ballot for best short story is Mike Resnick’s “The Homecoming” from Asimov’s. You can find it here. If spoilers bother you, read the story before continuing with this post.

OK. Young man is transformed into insectoid alien creature. Not magically or inexplicably (see Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis“), but through some transformative process that, presumably, is not surgery, because he has metallic silver skin, multifaceted red eyes, stick-like limbs, and a tube-shaped mouth. Philip, we learn, is an exobiologist who undertook the transformation in order to study an alien world. As in “The Metamorphosis,” the family (or at least the father, who provides the story’s viewpoint) reacts with horror and repugnance. Then, estrangement, which has lasted for many  years.

The story follows what happens when Philip returns home to visit his mother, who is suffering from dementia. After some bickering, an admonishment from the mother, and a brief description of the alien wonders Philip has seen, father and son are reconciled.

An interesting situation, but, emotionally, I couldn’t follow where this story tried to lead me, into a sympathy with and better understanding of the son. In fact, I started and ended with the same feeling of horror toward a person altering his body into an alien form, and my final thought at the end of the story was directed at the father–Ah, don’t make everything OK just because the story is telling you to! Perhaps the reconciliation was a shade too easy.

Evidently I am not the best person to send on a space exploration, not being up to the sacrifices required. I’ll continue to mull this one over while I turn to story #3 tomorrow.